Walking in Cape Town's lush Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden recently, I saw a large tortoise crossing an immaculate green lawn. The creature seemed out of place: With its dark-gray patterned shell, stumpy legs, twiggy toes, and a neck that looked like an old branch, the reptile surely belonged in a more rugged clime, among rocks and tough bushes.
It moved slowly, as if at odds with its dainty backdrop.
A young woman was watching with an anxious expression. "Is that your tortoise?" I asked.
She gave me a quick, bored look: "It's nobody's."
"You mean it lives here?"
"No," she replied, "I bring her every day."
"Ah," I said, at a bit at a loss as to how to proceed. "Where I come from they are fairly common," I ventured, "but I've never seen one here before."
Now she turned her full gaze on me and said, "Where do you come from?"
"The Great Karoo." I think I said it with a certain pride, as if it made me special.
"Oh, please," she said, her eyes darkening with sadness, "won't you take her back? I don't think she can live here. She's already declining."
The young woman told me that a traveling salesman had found the tortoise crossing the national road near Beaufort West, a small town in South Africa's Karoo (which means "place of great dryness" in one of the region's original languages, no longer spoken). The salesman had bundled her into the trunk of his vehicle on a whim, as travelers often do (contrary to law), and left her at a backpackers' lodge when he realized he couldn't care for her.
"I feed her on greens," said the young woman, "but she doesn't eat much. This place isn't right for her." Her eyes swept the ancient buildings that surround the Garden.
I have long had an affection for tortoises - they have such an ancient, patient look - and I had to pass Beaufort West on my way home. So I happily agreed to restore the creature to her home turf.
Two days later, when my wife and I pulled up outside the backpackers' lodge, the woman was waiting on the curb with a bunch of fresh green beans and the tortoise in a large box. We put the box in the back of our old truck and the tortoise immediately withdrew her head and limbs inside her shell. The young woman was weeping and saying, "My husband is angry with me. He asked me, 'How do you know you can trust that man to take the tortoise back?' But I know I can."
Deeply touched by her faith, I said, "We'll take her to the National Park."
On the long, bumpy journey I thought about other tortoises I had known. Between the paved highway and our village is a 20-mile stretch of dusty unpaved road.
Whenever we travel this road, we count the tortoises - eight is our record. Once, while resting beside a shallow stream, we heard a stumping sound and were delighted when a tortoise emerged from the reeds and crossed the stream, unconcerned, a yard from our feet. Not being a true amphibian like the turtle, he had to hold his head high.
Karoo tortoises aren't giant tortoises (a foot and a half around is the biggest I've seen), perhaps because they travel many miles and eat mostly sparse bushes. The smallest we've seen wasn't much bigger than a bottle top, clearly not much more than a baby.
We were picnicking beside a dust road during a severe drought when the bottletop came rowing through the sand. There didn't seem much for him to eat, so we placed a pile of cooked millet in his path. He rowed right through it and disappeared among the rocks. I hope he knew what he was doing.
We checked on the Cape Town tortoise many times before reaching the gates of the park, but she never emerged from her shell. We feared for her, but when we lifted her from the box and put her down on the arid earth, she slowly poked her feet and head out, sniffed the dry air, and took off.
A pity no hare was about to see it. If tortoises can run, she was sprinting through rocks and bushes, disappearing over a small hill.
I knew how she felt.
After four months in the busy city of Cape Town, with all its historic beauty, my heart lifted to the stretching semidesert, the rugged rock hills, the far mountains, the pure air, and the bluest sky in Africa.